kaigou: (1 Izumi)
[personal profile] kaigou
I've finally put a finger on what has me so entranced when watching media (shows, animation, etc) that's in a different language. At first, I thought: this is a kind of astonishment. Then I censored myself immediately, because wow, that sounds offensive -- if you twist it to the side, it could be saying: "wow, people have entirely different languages and they still communicate such complex ideas" which is not at all what I mean.

I've probably told some of you this story before, but when I lived in France, I recall spending the afternoon with a teacher's two children. Aged, hm, three and five, maybe? They had a globe, and one of them asked where I lived, so I put a finger on their hometown, and another on mine. There was a lot of blue-colored map between the two places, and the kids were suitably impressed.

However, somehow this raised the question of why (in their opinion) I couldn't speak French as well as the other adults they knew. Maybe, they appeared to be reasoning, it was because Americans were bad at talking. I said no, in America, we speak English.

Long pause. Skeptical looks.

"No, you speak French," they said. "Everyone speaks French."

"Not in the United States," I replied. "There, we don't speak French. We speak English."

Skeptical looks turned to absolute disdain, because now they were quite certain I was putting them on. There went all my credibility.

Later I asked their mom, who said that it's a developmental stage, related to the size of the kid's world, and the fact that they assume what they see around them is an example of everything, everywhere. It takes time and experience before we start to realize the world is a much bigger place than our little corner of it.

Watching foreign shows, or trying to read a manga in Taiwanese (or, ugh, Cantonese), makes me feel like my world has gotten even bigger. Or maybe it's that it makes me feel just that many times smaller. Like: these people are talking, and there's a whole way of writing, of conjugating verbs, of expressing the self, and I understand none of it. Chances are, I will never understand more than maybe "please" and "thank you" and "yes" and "no" and how to say "hello" on the phone. If that much. But people express ideas and emotions and my corner -- the English corner -- has no impact, no value, in this conversation.

It's a kind of reminder of humility. It's also sometimes incredibly frustrating, because it feels insurmountable. It feels like I will never, ever truly be able to read Mandarin (certainly not with the ease that I once read, spoke, or wrote French), but will always have to stop every few characters to try and rearrange the characters into my head, tossing them back and forth until they finally click, and even then feeling like I must've missed so much. Like there's this whole world out there, in Mandarin (or Korean, or Portuguese, or Swedish, or any of hundreds and hundreds of other languages) of which I can only just barely get the teeniest edge.

But it's also, oddly, lonely. Is it something in our upbringing, or our personality, that makes us react differently to meeting someone whose primary thought processes were shaped by a language not our own? I've met plenty of people (in several countries, of course including my own) who react with indignant superiority if you can't speak the local language flawlessly. Then there's the reaction next to that, which is to be amused or impressed by someone's attempt. That's the talking monkey syndrome: "oh, look, it talks!" and that's all, with no regard for the monkey's attempt to actually communicate.

Me, I feel inferior, sometimes, and envious, and sometimes curious. How much of the world am I missing, because I am trapped within only one way of comprehending anyone's attempt at communication? How much is out there that I can't see, can't read, can't understand, because I only have this one way of talking to the world? And... how on earth, really, did this person go from that language to this language, and achieve fluency? What hides within them that could bridge that gap, that I don't have?

Yes, I know, on a practical level, that immersion is a huge part of it. (It certainly was in France, arriving with a year of classes and leaving pretty damn fluent.) But it's more than that, since I've met people who've lived overseas for years, who've never gotten past the barest minimum needed to communicate. There's got to be something else going on, either some willingness to adopt/adapt, but also -- it seems to me -- something else, too. Maybe something innate, of upbringing or personality, that can move from the shape of the primary language and accept the unfamiliar shape of the new language.

Strangely (or not so much), I find this impacting me online, too. In any given day, over my career, the language spoken around me is English. But then, while seeking out Chinese scans, I've ended up on 115 and weibo (Chinese sites) where I'm absolutely baffled by whatever the site's trying to tell me. It's a constant struggle to deal with the interface. The alert boxes that are a) in flash or equivalent, such that I can't copy/paste, and b) disappear after a single second such that I can't even pause to read slowly. (I've gotten pretty good at screenshots, timing it for the split-second I see the alerts, so that I can then read at my own speed.) There are entire chunks of text and buttons on weibo and 115 that are flash-based, or image-based, that I can't copy over into a text-editor to slowly parse on my own. And neither flash nor images will enlarge so I can see the characters better, to figure out whether that's 究 or 突. At least the navigation (and icons) are basically structured the same as Western architectural standards, or I'd be utterly lost.

It makes me wonder, from this place of seeing the world almost entirely through one language, how much I take for granted -- in terms of expecting other people to understand. I'm sure it's never occurred to anyone at weibo that its alert boxes being non-copyable, and disappearing even without clicking (what I think is) the okay-button, might be an issue. But it is, so what have I done that's put someone else in the place where I am, on weibo? What would I want, with only the edges of a language, to help me understand a little more, or at least feel a little less lost?

What I end up feeling, mostly, is a kind of quiet depression, and sometimes despair. There's an entire world, there, and I can't be part of it. I don't mean that in the sense that I should be entitled (via privilege) to be part of it, or that it should adapt itself to my admittedly-very-low skills. I mean in the sense that I should be able, of my own accord, to cross that chasm: that it's something missing in me. Something I may never have, and I guess it's my belief in communication that makes me feel the lack so strongly.

And as a corollary: we (in the ux world) often have trouble convincing savvy users (designers, developers) that yes, the average user won't see the site as the problem. The user is going to see themselves as the problem; they're going to quit not because the buttons are backwards or the navigation's nonsensical, but with the impression that the user is just too stupid to get it. I rarely have that feeling, myself, on the English-language part of the web. But I feel that every single time I try to search for something on weibo. I feel stupid, and inadequate, and confused, and helpless. I feel like I should just give up, that I'm no good at this, and even that I never will be.

Then I start thinking of what might make me feel less like that, and how I'd change designs I've done, to be more inclusive of lesser language skills, or cognitive abilities, and all the rest of the passel that falls under the header of accessibility. Ultimately, I just don't want to think (though I'm certain I have, even if unwittingly) I've ever made someone else feel the way I feel, trying to figure out why I can't seem to download a damn thing off my weibo vdisk. To think I have, is mortifying.

Then I catch another episode of a K-drama, or watch a Thai movie, or read a translation of a Russian novel, and I think: there's so much out there in the world, being expressed in ways and complexities that I will only ever be able to understand through an intermediary. It's a part of the world I can only be told, and never truly be shown. And in a way, knowing there's so much unknown isn't depressing, in the end. It's humbling, but a little awe-inspiring, too. What marvelous creatures we humans are, to have hundreds upon hundreds of different ways to say good morning, to say thank you, to say I love you. The universality of human emotion rendered utterly separate by our faculty for language, but still universal even if we don't understand the words.

Ending here, because this is where I lose my own language and can't figure out how to express it well enough to bother anyone with more.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
锴 angry fishtrap 狗

to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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